Early signs of illness in birds are frequently missed by the pet owner. As a survival tactic in the wild, a sick bird will attempt to maintain a normal appearance as long as possible, so that by the time any symptoms are obvious, the bird has usually been ill for some time. The bird that dies “suddenly” may be the result of failure to make distinctions in the appearance or behavior of the bird prior to that time. For this reason, owners should familiarize themselves with early signs of illness in pet birds so that any therapy and care by their avian veterinarian will have a more favorable outcome.

Evaluation of Droppings

Observation of droppings is one simple method of monitoring your bird’s health. Paper towels, newspaper or other smooth suffaces can be used to line the cage bottom so that the number, volume, color and consistency of the three components of droppings can be noted daily. A bird’s normal droppings will vary in appearance depending on its diet.

Normal Droppings

Feces (food waste material from the digestive tract) can differ somewhat in color and consistency. Diets with a high seed content usually produce homo-geneous black or dark green feces. Birds on formulated diets normally exhibit soft, brownish feces. Urine is normally a clear liquid. A diet too high in vegetable and fruit matter may increase the urine component. Urates (creamy white waste from the kidney) are often suspended in the liquid urine or appear to wrap around the feces.

Abnormal Droppings – A sick bird may exhibit:

  • Decrease in the total number or volume of droppings.
  • Color change to yellow or green of the urates or urine.
  • Increase in the water content of the feces (diarrhea).
  • Increase in the urine portion (polyuria).
  • Decrease in the feces volume with increased urates (polyurates).
  • Presence of blood.

Some normal variations may be seen in impending egg-laying females, baby birds on hand-feeding formulas, the first void of the morning, conditions of nervousness and stress, or following a large meal of a specific colored food (e.g., blueberries). Thus, the owner should evaluate several droppings under normal circumstances before becoming alarmed.

Earliest Signs of Disease

The following symptoms may not require emergency treatment, but because they are abnormal, any bird showing these signs should be checked by your avian veterinarian, if these are not noticed during the regular check-up.

  • Prolonged molt or continual presence of pin feathers. — Broken, bent, picked or chewed feathers.
  • Unusual or dull feather colors.
  • Stained feathers over nares or around vent.
  • Crusty material in nostrils. Redness, swelling or loss of feathers around eye.
  • Flakiness of skin or beak.
  • Loss of pattern, baldness or sores on bottom of feet.
  • Lameness or shifting of body weight.
  • Overgrowth of beak or nails.
  • Minor changes in talking, biting or eating habits.
  • Low reproduction in breeding birds.
  • If these early signs are missed, they may progress to:

Signs of Serious Illness

The following symptoms may indicate a serious health problem and veterinary assistance should be sought at once!

  • Significant changes in number and appearance of the droppings.
  • Decreased or excessive food or water consumption.
  • Change in attitude, personality or behavior.
  • Fluffed posture.
  • Decreased vocalization.
  • Change in breathing or abnormal sounds.
  • Change in weight or general body condition (weigh in grams).
  • Enlargement or swelling on the body.
  • Any bleeding or injury.
  • Vomiting or regurgitation.
  • Discharge from nostrils, eyes or mouth.

Emergency First Aid

Heat and food are the two most important considerations for temporary care of the sick bird until it can be seen by your avian veterinarian. The bird should be kept quiet and handling should be avoided. A temperature of 85-900F should be maintained for sick birds. A temporary incubator can be made by placing a heating pad along the side or floor of the cageand draping the entire cage with towels, a blanket or cage cover. An infra-red or 100 watt light can be used as an alternate heat source. If the bird starts breathing rapidly and holds its wings away from its body, the temperature is too hot. Certain types of room heaters (e.g., kerosene) should be avoided near the bird.

Every effort must be made to encourage the sick bird to eat. Cups of food should be placed adjacent to where the bird is perched, or food can be scattered on the bottom of the cage if the bird is off the perch. Offer the bird’s favorites, by hand if necessary. Warm, strong coffee with a high sugar concentration has been credited with temporarily reviving weak birds until they can be seen at the veterinary clinic. An electrolyte solution, such as Pedialyte, may be given orally to help prevent dehydration. The smaller the bird, the more critical the need for prompt attention.

Do not give antibiotics, “miracle cures,” alcohol or oil.

Do not wait to see how the bird is tomorrow. Call your bird’s veterinarian!

Postmortem Examination

If a bird is found dead, the body should be thoroughly rinsed in soapy water, placed in a plastic bag, refrigerated and then taken to an avian veterinarian to determine the cause of death. This is necessary in order to protect the health and safety of remaining birds in the home. Adapted from a brochure by the Association of Avian Veterinarians